German Design 1949 – 1989

Two Countries, One History

Early in the twentieth century, design from Germany attained international significance. After 1949, its development followed a uniquetrajectory: design as it had evolved before the war developed and changed in completely different circumstances in the two parts of the divided country. Collaborating with the Vitra Design Museum, the Kunstgewerbemuseum of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden is mounting an exhibition that provides an extensive overview of postwar German design history. It will highlight not only the different realities of design in the East and West, but also the parallels and cross-connections.

  • DATES 15/10/2021—06/03/2022


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Deutsches Design 1949 – 1989 | Einführung in die Ausstellung


The extraordinary circumstance of having a double history brings into focus the status of design in different material and social conditions. Accordingly, the first section of the exhibition focusses on how design in both countries featured as an instrument of political propaganda and as a tool for the formation of identity. In addition, objects are presented that show a connection between the two countries. On both sides of the wall, it was seen as relevant to link into modern ideas and to engage in economic exchange. The exhibition departs from past retrospective shows and publications on “German” design which only rarely afforded East German design culture its own significance and meaning.

Kaffeekännchen aus weißem Porzellan
© Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Foto: Gunter Binsack
Margarete Jahny und Erich Müller, Kännchen aus dem Hotelgeschirr »Rationell«, 1970 VEB Vereinigte Porzellanwerke Colditz

1949–60: Rebuilding and Beginning Anew

In 1949, within the space of a few months, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) were founded. On both sides of the inner German border, designers took orientation from their shared design heritage and the design ideals of the pre-war period, for example the Deutscher Werkbund (German Association of Craftsmen), founded in 1907, or the Bauhaus. Despite different economic systems and political orientations, both countries responded similarly to the needs of their citizens, focussing on industrial production, progressive product development and the construction of modern housing. Both sides promoted the establishment or reopening of design institutions, colleges and businesses. Some companies even had production sites in the West and in the East.  

© Vitra Design Museum, Foto: Jürgen Hans
Erich Menzel, Stuhl Nr. 50642, 1949 Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau

Round Table

Using the discussion format of the “round table”, designers and design experts will be coming together to consider questions of German design and its history on both sides of the divide. The name “Runder Tisch” (round table) is borrowed from the 1989–90 committees of the same name. Thanks to their open structure, they became a forum in which citizens could organize, discuss problems openly and objectively and could search for solutions together. In this way, they contributed to a peaceful institutionalization of democracy. The manufacturer Deutsche Werkstätten has produced a custom piece of furniture for the event series which is linked to the exhibition conceptually while being oriented on the catalogue in its colouration.

Runder Tisch Filme

1961–1972: Two Visions of Society

The construction of the Berlin wall spelled a departure for the shared design history of the two German states. Previously, some German businesses and designers had straddled the inner German border, but now the field of design was definitively becoming a stage for two competing political systems. In West Germany, design assumed a key role in consumer society, with new furniture and vehicles becoming coveted status symbols. In the East, design was steered by the socialist ideals of a centrally planned economy: as specified by the Office of Industrial Design, affordable products were to be produced for large segments of the population. The development of slab buildings created a particularly great need to redesign and reimagine furnishings. Despite the very different circumstances, both German states experienced a boom in design. A unifying feature of this period was the influence of futuristic Space Age products and pop culture. Inter-German trade also influenced relations between the two countries.

© Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Foto: Felix Ghyczy/FG Foundation
Sessel mit einklappbarer Lehne, sog. "Senftenberger Ei", Entwurf: Peter Ghyczy, 1968 VEB Synthesewerk Schwarzheide, um 1971

1973 – 1989: Crisis, Protest and Alternatives

When Erich Honecker became First Secretary (1971), and amidst a declining economy in the GDR and a transition to export production on the part of large companies, many East German designers felt the need to look for new possibilities. They sought opportunities outside state-owned enterprises, focussing on principles of construction that made repair simple and affordable. In doing so, they took inspiration from craft techniques and the artistic practice of producing in small series. In West Germany, the 1973 oil crisis was a watershed moment for industrial design. Although the industry managed to maintain its international pioneering role, designers began to look for alternatives. Many found what they were looking for in “new German design”: artistic and experimental approaches and a return to craftsmanship in the workshop.

© VG Bild-Kunst 2021, Vitra Design Museum, Foto: Jürgen HANS
Stiletto, Sessel Consumer’s Rest, 1983



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Publication on the special exhibition

German Design 1949–1989: Two countries, one history

Edited by Kunstgewerbemuseum der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden, dem Vitra Design Museum und der Wüstenrot Stiftung, Mateo Kries, Thomas A. Geisler, Erika Pinner, Klára Němečková, Softcover mit Klappen, 320 Seiten, ca. 380 Bilder, 59,90 €, ISBN 978-3-945852-43-9 (DE)/978-3-945852-44-6 (EN)

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Eine Ausstellung des Kunstgewerbemuseums, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, des Vitra Design Museums und der Wüstenrot Stiftung

An exhibition by Kunstgewerbemuseum, Vitra Design Museum and Wüstenrot Stiftung

Kooperationspartner & Förderer

An exhibition by Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Vitra Design Museum and Wüstenrot Stiftung

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Main sponsor

Cooperation partners and sponsor education programme

Kooperationspartner und Förderer Bildungsprogramm

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